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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

From the ‘Life of Andrew Jackson’

By James Parton (1822–1891)

THERE are certain historical facts which puzzle and disgust those whose knowledge of life and men has been chiefly derived from books. To such it can with difficulty be made clear that the award is just which assigns to George Washington a higher place than Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson,—higher honor to the executing hand than to the conceiving head. If they were asked to mention the greatest Englishman of this age, it would never occur to them to name the Duke of Wellington, a man of an understanding so limited as to be the natural foe of everything liberal and progressive. Yet the Duke of Wellington was the only Englishman of his generation to whom every Englishman took off his hat. And these men of books contemplate with mere wonder the fact that during a period when Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Wirt, and Preston were on the public stage, Andrew Jackson should have been so much the idol of the American people, that all those eminent men united could not prevail against him in a single instance.

It is pleasant to justify the ways of man to man. The instinctive preferences of the people must be right. That is to say, the man preferred by the people must have more in him of what the people most want than any other of his generation. The more intimately we know the men who surrounded General Washington, the clearer to us does his intrinsic superiority become, and the more clearly we perceive his utter indispensableness. Washington was the only man of the Revolution who did for the Revolution what no other man could have done. And if ever the time comes when the eminent contemporaries of Andrew Jackson shall be as intimately known to the people as Andrew Jackson now is, the invincible preference of the people for him will be far less astonishing than it now appears. Clay was the only man of the four leading spirits whose character will bear a comparison with our fiery, faulty hero. Clay was indeed a princely man; it is impossible not to love him: but then, his endowments were not great, and his industry was limited. How often when the country wanted statesmanship, he had nothing to give it but oratory!

Besides, suppose Washington had not fought the battle of Trenton, and not restored the Revolution when it was about to perish. Suppose England had lost the battle of Waterloo, and given the fellest—because the ablest—of tyrants another lease of power. Suppose the English had sacked New Orleans, and no peace had come to check their career of conquest! By indulging this turn of reflection, we shall perceive that the Washingtons, the Wellingtons, and the Jacksons of a nation are they who provide or preserve for all other gifts, talents, and virtues, their opportunity and sphere. How just, therefore, is the gratitude of nations toward those who, at the critical moment, DO the great act that creates or defends them!

What man supremely admires in man is manhood. The valiant man alone has power to awaken the enthusiastic love of us all. So dear to us is valor, that even the rudest manifestations of it in the pugilistic ring excite, for a moment, a universal interest. Its highest manifestation, on the martyr’s cross, becomes the event from which whole races date their after history. Every great career, whether of a nation or of an individual, dates from a heroic action, and every downfall from a cowardly one. To dare, to dare again, and always to dare, is the inexorable condition of every signal and worthy success, from founding a cobbler’s stall to promulgating a nobler faith. In barbarous ages, heroes risked their lives to save their self-respect; in civilized periods, they risk what it is harder to risk, their livelihood, their career.

It is not for nothing that nature has implanted in her darling the instinct of honoring courage before all other qualities. What a delicate creature was man to be tossed upon this planet, and sent whirling through space, naked, shelterless, and untaught; wild beasts hungering to devour him; the elements in league against him; compelled instantly to begin the “struggle for life,” which could never cease until life ceased. What but heroic valor could have saved him for a day? Man has tamed the beasts, and reduced the warring elements to such subjection that they are his untiring servants. His career on earth has been, is, will ever be, a fight; and the ruling race in all ages is that one which has produced the greatest number of brave men. Men truly brave. Men valiant enough to die rather than do, suffer, or consent to, wrong. To risk life is not all of courage, but it is an essential part of it. There are things dearer to the civilized man than life. But he who cannot calmly give up his life rather than live unworthily comes short of perfect manhood; and he who can do so, has in him at least the raw material of a hero.

In the eternal necessity of courage, and in man’s instinctive perception of its necessity, is to be found perhaps the explanation of the puzzling fact, that in an age which has produced so many glorious benefactors of their species, such men as Wellington and Jackson are loved by a greater number of people than any others. The spiritualized reader is not expected to coincide in the strict justice of this arrangement. His heroes are of another cast. But the rudest man and the scholar may agree in this, that it is the valor of their heroes which renders them effective and admirable. The intellect, for example, of a discoverer of truth excites our wonder; but what rouses our enthusiasm is the calm and modest valor with which he defies the powerful animosity of those who thrive by debauching the understanding of man.

It was curious that England and America should both, and nearly at the same time, have elevated their favorite generals to the highest civil station. Wellington became prime minister in 1827; Jackson, President in 1829. Wellington was tried three years, and found wanting, and driven from power, execrated by the people. His carriage, his house, and his statue were pelted by the mob. Jackson reigned eight years, and retired with his popularity undiminished. The reason was, that Wellington was not in accord with his generation, and was surrounded by men who were if possible less so; while Jackson, besides being in sympathy with the people, had the great good fortune to be influenced by men who had learned the rudiments of statesmanship in the school of Jefferson.

Yes, autocrat as he was, Andrew Jackson loved the people, the common people, the sons and daughters of toil, as truly as they loved him, and believed in them as they believed in him.

He was in accord with his generation. He had a clear perception that the toiling millions are not a class in the community, but are the community. He knew and felt that government should exist only for the benefit of the governed; that the strong are strong only that they may aid the weak; that the rich are rightfully rich only that they may so combine and direct the labors of the poor as to make labor more profitable to the laborer. He did not comprehend these truths as they are demonstrated by Jefferson and Spencer, but he had an intuitive and instinctive perception of them. And in his most autocratic moments he really thought that he was fighting the battle of the people, and doing their will while baffling the purposes of their representatives. If he had been a man of knowledge as well as force, he would have taken the part of the people more effectually, and left to his successors an increased power of doing good, instead of better facilities for doing harm. He appears always to have meant well. But his ignorance of law, history, politics, science, of everything which he who governs a country ought to know, was extreme. Mr. Trist remembers hearing a member of the General’s family say that General Jackson did not believe the world was round. His ignorance was as a wall round about him—high, impenetrable. He was imprisoned in his ignorance, and sometimes raged round his little dim inclosure like a tiger in his den.